Journalists, in defensive crouch, swing news coverage to Yanukovych’s favor

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May 6, 2010, 11:50 p.m. | Ukraine — by Yuliya Popova
There’s no need to count seconds in news bulletins or lines in print media to see if the political opposition is getting squeezed. Less than a minute. That’s how much air time the opposition got to protest Ukrainian-Russian pacts on natural gas and the Russian Black Sea fleet on one of the most popular weekly programs on ICTV channel. In contrast, the prime ministers and presidents of both countries, as well as other state officials, scored a half hour to back their deals on April 25 show.

“It was a technical mistake,” explained Oksana Sokolova, chief editor and anchor of the program. “Different editors were arranging for different guests, and it was hard to change things at the last minute.” Sokolova’s show has won prestigious awards, but she failed to find a different explanation for the 30:1 ratio on an hour-long program.

“It’s self-censorship or telephone assistance from someone in the presidential administration,” said Natalya Ligacheva, head of media watchdog Telekritika. Her diagnosis of the state of press freedoms in Ukraine after presidential elections in February is worrying. “We already see that new government wants to follow Russian scenario. They want to control democracy, and media will be one of their tools,” Ligacheva added.

There is no need to count seconds in news bulletins or lines in print media to see if the political opposition is getting squeezed. It’s all out in the open.

Ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who enjoyed Hollywood popularity on talk shows prior to the presidential elections this year, has vanished with barely a trace. She claims she was banned. After she lost the second round of the presidential poll on Feb. 7, she appeared only once on Savik Shuster’s political show, on April 23. Tymoshenko tried barging into Evgeny Kyselyov’s political show on Inter TV. Instead, the host organized a televised poll to see if Tymoshenko had something to add to his program. Since the majority of callers voted “no,” he decided it was representative enough for the nation of 46 million people, where Tymoshenko was just a few percentage points short of winning the presidency.

The presidential office denies pressuring the news media. “The president is doing good politics, but way too fast for the media to catch up and understand all the complexities and benefits,” Serhiy Lyovochkin, President Viktor Yanukovych’s chief of staff, said.
“No one from [Prime Minister Mykola] Azarov’s office is telling us what to do. Media owners have decided that if new government is reforming everything with such speed, it’s best not to irritate them.”

- Anonymous journalist

Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog, has written to Yanukovych twice, first to express dismay at “an alarming deterioration in the press freedom situation in Ukraine” since his Feb. 25 inauguration. Their second letter came after gas-and-fleet agreements were signed in Kharkiv on April 21. The watchdog noted that “many journalists were barred” from the joint presidential news conference that Yanukovych held with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Hanna Herman, deputy chief of the presidential administration, said there were simply not enough seats to let all the journalists in. Herman went on to invite the head of Reporters Without Borders to Ukraine.

Some journalists appear to be putting pressure only on themselves -- voluntarily tailoring their coverage so as not to offend the Yanukovych administration.

“It’s self-censorship,” said one editor, who asked for anonymity out of fear of losing his job at a group of channels owned by Viktor Pinchuk, the billionaire son-in-law of ex-President Leonid Kuchma.

“No one from [Prime Minister Mykola] Azarov’s office is telling us what to do,” the journalist said. “Media owners have decided that if new government is reforming everything with such speed, it’s best not to irritate them.”

Laboratory of Legislative Changes, a Kyiv think tank, has been following Ukraine’s democratic progress since 2000. “We faced pressure when [Kuchma’s] administration first cracked down on us by investigating how non-government organizations use foreign aid,” said Ihor Kogut, head of the initiative. “Then tax authorities visited us in 2004 at the dawn of the Orange Revolution. We survived, but I wouldn’t be surprised if same measures were implemented again. We are on a road back to Kuchma’s time.”

Talk of tax hikes, one method for silencing media, have already surfaced in parliament. A tax hike on advertising, drafted by the ruling Party of Regions, has been under discussion. Experts say that some media outlets, already battered by the economic crisis, wouldn’t be able to survive a tax hike. Azarov said it is currently off the table.

Ligacheva from Telekritika said she has heard that Lyovochkin, State Security Service head Valery Khoroshkovsky and billionaire gas trader Dmytro Firtash “want to lay their hands on all media in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, the content of news stories is shifting dramatically in favor of the administration. A journalist from one of the leading TV channels complained about the need to include Azarov in a story on a film premiere. “It’s a lifestyle piece, not politics!” said the journalist, who also requested anonymity out of fear of being fired. “I get a feeling that editors don’t know what to expect and want to please new government.”

Editor Sokolova, who went on ICTV’s airwaves with three long interviews with Azarov, Lyvochkin and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko, denied being pressured by her supervisors. “I don’t regret it, we had great news ratings,” she added. Another editor, who watched Sokolova’s one-sided program, said “it was a horrendous breach of journalist principles.”

Kyiv Post staff writer Yuliya Popova can be reached at
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